Ron Kaye: Helping those trying to help themselves

Sometimes I think we care more about pets than people, which is really strange when you think about it. I’m sure that couldn’t be true of any other species on the planet.

We round up stray cats and dogs and put them in cages where we feed and care for them while arranging to find loving homes for as many as we can.

People who get in trouble with the law we lock up in cages and throw away the keys. And when we can’t afford to provide for their care any longer, we throw them back onto the streets where they are on their own to live or to die — or to continue the same criminal behavior that got them jailed in the first place.

Some people — like my friend Nyabingi Kuti, a community organizer and activist with the MLK Coalition — think that is a crazy way to deal with the problem.

That’s especially true now when thousands of felons are being shipped from overcrowded state prisons to overcrowded county jails, or in the case of the “Nons” (non-serious, non-sexual, nonviolent offenders), getting released early onto the streets with nothing but $200 in “gate” money — if they are lucky and their paperwork doesn’t get lost.

It’s the governor’s “realignment” plan that started Oct. 1, and it has a lot of people worried that it will trigger a huge surge in crime after years of decline. After all, without effective rehabilitation programs re-entry into society is tough, which is why we have a 70% recidivism rate.

Many local politicians and law enforcement officials figure are howling for more money to hire more cops and build more county jails.

But others like Nyabingi are working hard to develop alternatives to jail and tough policing to actually turn realignment into a creative opportunity to bring resources together to help the “formerly incarcerated” — a preferred term for ex-convicts — stay out of trouble and lead productive lives.

Two dozen people with a wide range of skills and experiences in law enforcement, government, mental and physical health treatment, nonprofit charities and faith-based groups met Thursday at the Flintridge Center in Pasadena to launch the Los Angeles Reintegration Council as an organizing and coordinating tool.

“We are trying to reform a broken system,” Nyabingi tells them as he explains his effort to work with probation officers and community groups to create a groundswell for change in government policies at the local government levels. “We need a united front to get them to listen.”

Pasadena was chosen for good reason. The city is far ahead of the curve in developing and implementing alternative programs that show signs of helping reduce the recidivism rate.

Two years ago, the Pasadena Police Department initiated a parolee outreach program with the Flintridge Center — an incubator for nonprofits — and other groups that has become a model for how parolees can be helped.

It’s called PACT (Pasadena Altadena Community Team), and it brings police and sheriff’s deputies together with caregivers and support organizations.

“PACT does work,” Flintridge Center outreach worker Mark Franco. “These people have done for me what the Department of Corrections didn’t do in 22 years. They have to be ready. Some want it. Some don’t. Some just want a quick fix.”

Instead of adding to what he described as his own long, long rap sheet, Franco spends his days now connecting with parolees wherever they are. He walks, rides his bike and takes public transit to move about because it puts him in touch with a lot of people who have fallen through the cracks and could be guided to agencies that offer support.

“When they ask me how I get around, I say I take the 210 — two feet, 10 toes,” he quips.

It’s a moment of levity that lightens the mood of an intense 90-minute session of sharing experiences, knowledge and ideas on how we can do something about the parolee problem other than keep perpetuating the revolving door of prison.

Deputy Police Chief Darryl Qualls and Officer Anthony Russo describe Pasadena’s commitment to therapeutic efforts to help, even bringing along outreach workers on routine searches of parolee homes where they can show the ex-cons and their families a caring face instead of the iron fist of law enforcement.

Brian Biery, director of community organizing for the Flintridge Center,

summarizes what participants have identified as their action plan: Develop a resolution for cities to adopt as their commitments and to pressure the county Board of Supervisors; advocate for more funding for programs that work; collaborate closely with each other; develop better data on what efforts are working and what aren’t; and use Pasadena as a model for community-law enforcement relationships to get buy-in from other agencies.

“This is the beginning of a conversation … about what we need to do as community members to ensure that reintegration and re-entry actually happen,” Biery said.

These people clearly believe there are a lot of parolees coming out of prisons and jails who are “ready” to straighten out their lives, but who need drug counseling, job training or other help. The question is whether the rest of us are ready to offer a helping hand to those who are helping themselves.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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